by Mark Kutolowski
So often, Lent is understood by Christians as a time to increase our efforts – to pray more, to fast, and to give more of ourselves through acts of charity. If we’re not careful, we can start to think of Lent as a time to try harder, and as an opportunity to improve our selves to become better people, and better servants of God. Yet, to think of Lent as a time of self-improvement is to miss out on the deeper meaning and purpose of the season.
Lent is situated in the liturgical calendar directly before the Paschal Mystery – the death and resurrection of Christ. This mystery is understood as so great, and so powerful, that we need six weeks to prepare to fully take in its power and meaning. How can we prepare to take in the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection – so that Easter becomes not only a memorial, but a living experience of Resurrection within us? We do this precisely by participating in the same dying to self in our own lives that marked Jesus’ journey to the cross.
Two Greek words from the New Testament offer a way to follow Jesus’ deeper invitation in Lent – metanoia and kenosis. Jesus’ very first teaching in Matthew (4:17) and Mark (1:15) is the call to metanoia. Often translated as ‘repentance’, metanoia literally means a transformation or expansion (meta-) of our spiritual seeing and inmost being (‘noia’, a derivation of the Greek ‘nous’). To practice metanoia means to let go of our current, limited perception, and to silently wait for Christ to reveal a new, deeper level of life and insight. It is a call to see and understand at a level beyond what we can currently see, and so is a call to both die to the old way, and open our hearts to a newer, divine reality. In prayer, metanoia is often best practiced not by asking for any particular outcome, but simply by opening our heart to God’s presence in trust, and asking God to help us to see. Kenosis is a related Greek word, used by St. Paul in his letter to the Phillipians, where he wrote that Jesus ‘emptied himself’ (kenosis) in becoming human, and later in laying down his life on the cross.
Kenosis, or ‘self-emptying’, is a far more radical move than any effort of self-improvement or reform. It does not consist in trying to rid ourselves of any particular negative habit or trait through the efforts of our will or ego. Rather, kenosis means laying down or dropping the entire project of our ordinary ego, will and identity, to ‘die’ to this old self in order to allow a new, deeper Life to emerge. This is Jesus’ call to let the grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, in order that it might bear much fruit. It’s his teaching that if we try to save our life, we’ll lose it, yet if we lose our life, we’ll save it. The great message of the death and resurrection of Christ is that what we die into, in God, does not end in destruction, but is a doorway into transformed life. As with metanoia, kenosis calls for laying aside all personal agenda in prayer, and to open in humility and trust to the hidden life of God among and within us.
This dying to self, patterned by Jesus, is our deeper call and invitation in Lent. We are invited not to improve our psyche or persona, but to go beyond our conventional way of being altogether, and to lay down this old self in order to open to God’s greater life living through us. Have we ever considered that God does not so much desire to encourage and reward our good deeds from above, but rather to dwell within us, to live in and through us, and to make God’s own Divine Life our own? If our goal is to die to ourselves and to rise in new Life in Christ, let us take up the practice of metanoia and kenosis this Lent. Far better than breaking a bad habit or two, we may just discover we’re being invited into an entirely new Life!